Stuart Sorenson, featured in the second part of this interview, had some interesting things to say about cognitive dissonance.
The host interviewer asked questions trying to get Stuart to give a difference between those of us who did not believe the world was coming to an end and those who did. It seemed the host was looking for a simple answer that would prove he and his friends were immune to grand delusions. Ironic, since that feeling of invulnerability would also have been a form of cognitive dissonance and delusion.
Mr. Sorenson explained, to the audible disappointment of the host, that the difference between the two groups was not cognitive capability, but of having different unmet needs. He explained that those who belong in extreme religious groups are just trying to meet a need. The need is so great that they feel they must lie to themselves to meet it.
Mr. Sorenson went on to show how we all use cognitive dissonance as a coping mechanism. We need it. He also explained how it is dangerous to take away one coping mechanism without first replacing it.
Instead of allowing the host to create a divide between the duped and savvy, Mr. Sorenson kept bringing the conversation back our similarities, bringing us to empathy instead of distancing.
It was helpful for me to realize that I held onto young earth beliefs as a teen, not because I was stupid, but because the community that met my need for belonging required that belief. I held onto my belief of male superiority because I needed the stability that family tradition offered in exchange.
I was able to leave because I left that community and discovered that I could get social support in other forms. I worked with atheists and Buddhists that had left Christianity because of their commitment to compassion and ethics. I discovered, by accident, the freedom of facing fears with searching for evidence instead of myth. (And to critique where different “evidence” came from.)
It helps me have more patience and compassion for those who stubbornly cling to beliefs that harm them and others around them. I know that showing them how they are wrong isn’t enough and will increase the stakes for them holding their belief. I have to provide a safe place.
Like the woman who is told that her cleaning products are harming her son’s health, we have to choose between admitting that we were wrong and that we caused harm and defending our past decisions. The last one allows us to cling to the belief that we are not stupid and/or hurtful to those we love the most.
We can face the painful journey of dealing with the truth that we caused harm or were harmed, or we can keep the rosy picture of ourselves or our authorities by ignoring and demonizing the evidence. It takes strength and resources to go through that journey.
My mom clings harder to her belief in a God who says mental illness is caused by demons. This belief is entrenching her illnesses and making them worse. Her negative self-talk about being worthless and a wretched sinner does not help. (understatement)
And yet, does she have the resources to admit that her parents, her church leaders, and all those she trusted were wrong? That they were inadvertently hurtful? That she hurt us by propagating those lies?
I don’t know.
But by being a safe person, by continuing to grow, maybe I can be an example. I have not become psychotic or abusive since leaving Christianity. It is a relief that, unlike when I was told to be a good Christian example, I do not have to hide my defects. Or what really is my humanity. I am allowed to doubt. To question. To experience a range of emotion. I’m allowed to be wrong.
I don’t have to prove that my form of atheism is right, therefore I don’t have to lie to myself or others like I did before.